In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Trigger-happy Miami cops a reminder of the ’80s

Ignominy plagues the Miami Police Department like a chronic disease. Like something incurable.

One of the most discouraging paragraphs in a dismal report summarizing the federal investigation into controversial police shootings between 2008 and 2011 came under heading of “background.”

“This is the second time that the Department of Justice has had cause to investigate MPD in about a decade,” the report noted. “Our first investigation, which began in May 2002, was predicated on allegations that officers used excessive deadly and non-deadly force.”

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney was brought in to fix that mess. And he seemed to do just that. The Justice Department report, released last week, noted that under Timoney, “MPD made important changes to its policies that significantly restricted the use of deadly force, resulting in a 20-month period between December 2002 and September 2004 when no MPD officer discharged his or her firearm at anyone.”

The rather stunning turnaround was attributed to “changes in policies and procedures, increased accountability, and increased supervision within the specialized units, such as SWAT and the Problem-Solving Teams.” The cowboy days seemed over.

Timoney, however, was an unloved chief down at City Hall. By 2010, he was gone. And the department seemed to be sliding back into trigger-happy infamy. After that period of restraint, Miami police “intentionally shot individuals 33 times,” between 2008 and 2011. The report noted that “MPD itself recently found three of these shootings unjustified, and we found that a number of additional shootings were questionable at best”

The report concluded that that the Miami Police Department “engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force with respect to firearms discharges.”

But it’s not just the shootings that have dredged up old worries about the Miami PD. Nine officers have been arrested for various crimes since 2010, for crimes ranging from running a protection racket for a illegal gambling house to stealing drugs from drug dealers to fraud and theft to involvement in a stolen-property scheme.

In 2008, two Miami policemen were busted for taking bribes to protect shipments of illegal drugs and stolen property. (Both pleaded guilty). That cased was a discomfiting reminder of the infamous 1985 scandal that became a kind of national marker for cops gone wild.

The scandal unfolded after a gang of Miami patrolman raided a drug smugglers’ boat docked on the Miami River and stole $12 million worth of cocaine. The bodies of three smugglers were discovered floating down the river.

A 1990 PBS Frontline documentary on police corruption led with Miami: “The case of the Miami River cops would quickly become one of the biggest and most violent cases in the annals of police corruption. Fifteen officers were initially arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for up to 35 years. The FBI entered the case. The investigation of corruption widened and eventually 80 police officers would be arrested, convicted or disciplined.”

That left the police department with a lot of taint to overcome.

One would think, given the oft-repeated promises to fix the department’s lousy reputation, that the Miami PD would forever after give particular emphasis to internal affairs investigations. But last week’s Justice Department report stated that “MPD has fully investigated only 24 of the 33 shooting incidents between 2008 and 2011, and has allowed multiple investigations to remain unfinished for three years or longer.

“Of the 17 shootings from the 2010-2011 period, only 10 have a completed investigation.”

The reported cited a fatal 2009 shooting “in which the only living witnesses are the shooting officers. More than three years after the incident, the involved officers still have not provided statements about what transpired during the shooting.”

The investigations were allowed to drag on. “These delays prevent prompt corrective action and cause possible policy, training, or equipment deficiencies to remain uncorrected for months or even years, compromising officer safety, opening MPD to potential liability, and increasing the likelihood that avoidable shootings may continue to occur.”

The findings were reminiscent of a report last year in the Miami Herald that Internal Affairs had failed to complete 50 internal affairs investigations, flouting a state law requiring investigations of possible police wrongdoing to be concluded within 180 days.

The Miami Fraternal Order of Police took issue with this latest Department of Justice report, listing one disagreement after another. But the FOP then added its own list of complaints about department policies, claiming the department suffered training deficiencies and a lack of supervisors on the street. FOP also blamed problems on low pay for Miami police officers. “You get what you pay for.”

FOP seemed to be saying that the Justice Department’s findings were erroneous — but if they weren’t, here’s a list of the reasons why.

Clearly, Police Chief Manuel Orosa, who took over the department in the fall of 2011, has worked hard to reform its culture. He has added five new officers to internal affairs and tripled the number of investigators working with an FBI anti-corruption unit.

The Justice Department report applauded Orosa’s efforts to address police shootings, which “decreased significantly in 2012 to almost half of the total for each of the preceding four years. Recent reviews also appear to be more thorough and propose remedial actions to address errant conduct.”

But the report added a cautionary note: “Given the fact that this is our second investigation of MPD within the last twelve years, and the fact that many of the deficiencies that we previously uncovered now appear to be deeply rooted, we are concerned about the sustainability of these recent changes.”

Those concerns, so familiar, seem like an echo from 2002. Or was it 1985?

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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